The three gorges dam project in China constitutes one of the greatest water supply projects in the history of humanity. It has faced a lot of criticism from all over the world due to its estimated costs and its effect on the environment, economy and the social lives of the residents. Just like any other major project, it has both its costs and benefits. Some of the main costs of the project are displacement of people, ecological disruption, pollution, and increased seismic activity as well as geological disruption. Significant benefits include provision of electricity and water, increased navigation and also reduction of flood risk in the area.
Yangtze River is the longest in China and the third longest in the world after the Nile and Amazon River in Africa and South America respectively. The source of the river is the Tanggula Mountain and flows 6300km via the provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan, Tibet, Hubei, Hunan, Anhui, Jiangsu and finally past the city of Shanghai in to the East China Sea (ministry of Culture, P.R.China, 2003). The river has three gorges which are the Qutang, Wuxia and Xiling gorges and are known for their historical sites that attract numerous tourists in the region.
The Chinese government has constructed a big hydro electric dam on one of the most important sections of the Yangtze river namely the three gorges. The rise of the water level is 350 feet in a hundred mile stretch of the river displacing over one million people hence greatly changing their lives and livelihood (Chetham, 2004). This dam has been the greatest ever to be constructed so far in the world and it required complex technology and sophistication. However, the dam has environmental, social and economic impacts on the river and its sorroundings.
2.0 Social Impacts
Construction of the dam has displaced more than one million people who had lived along the river all their lives hence leaving them with no homes, land and livelihoods. Even though they were resettled to other areas, the movement has changed their lifestyles and making a living would be very difficult. Displacement is a major cause of impoverishment. Most people are used to agricultural employment along the river and the resettlement areas do not provide the same farming opportunities as their previous homes due to unfertile lands or inadequate space. A vast majority of the people were poor even before the displacement. Afterwards, most of them were given little or no compensation which made their situation worse than it previously was.
(b) Health Concerns
Construction of dams is linked to transmission of diseases especially malaria since they provide breeding grounds for mosquitoes. In addition, dams cause flooding in some areas which result to an increase of wuchereria bancrofti infection, a parasite that is responsible for elephantiasis. Toxic releases from the reservoirs are another danger that the people near the dam may face. An example is methyl mercury which is mostly dangerous to pregnant women because the toxin affects the nervous system and the growing brain of the baby.
(c) Cultural loss
Most of the people had lived along this river almost an entire lifetime. Therefore, moving away from it had great psychological effects because their roots, culture and memories were in this area. Furthermore, there was loss of archaeological and cultural site since the three gorges were known for their beauty and attracted visitors from all over the world. Unfortunately, the government did not set funds aside for protection and saving of these sites and artifacts during the construction of the dam. In addition, inadequate personnel and insufficient time made the operation quite difficult.
(d) Unfair compensation
Due to the magnitude of the project, there was a lot of unfair treatment during the resettlement process and issues of corruption on the procedures of relocation were reported. Since the infrastructural project was large scale, it was easier for embezzlement of funds which was spent in other areas. Moreover, most people were not given adequate compensation for their land due to insufficient funds since the number of Chinese to be relocated had been underestimated.
(a) Flood control
Before the construction of the dam, floods were experienced after every 10 years along the Yangtze River. However, this interval has been increased to 100 years because of this project. The big gap of the flooding interval will save very many lives since most of them will either never witness the flooding or, if they do, it will be most probably once in a lifetime.
(b) Employment opportunity
This project has created a lot of employment opportunities for the residents. This was through the construction of the dam which required a lot of manpower. Furthermore, the government was using a resettlement plan that included developing the economy and infrastructure around the reservoir to ensure that the living standards of the resettled people were sufficient.
3.0 Economic impacts
(a) Energy supply
The dam is the largest hydro electric power project in the world and it provides cheap hydro energy to much of China. This is a renewable, clean as well as a self sustainable source of energy. The government of China believes that the debts incurred when constructing the dam will be fully paid only three years after the completion of the dam. This is a very short time compared to the benefits China will get from this project especially in the production of electricity.
(b) Provision of water
The dam provides water for irrigation hence boosting the agricultural sector since more water can now be preserved in the reservoirs. This has encouraged more people to be involved in farming because of availability of water all year round and in the process creating a source of income for them. In addition, the dam has ensured that the surrounding areas are provided with a stable source of clean drinking water.
(c) Increased navigability
With an increased depth of almost 600ft, larger ships can be used to transport commodities along the Yangtze River. Increased navigability of the river has enhanced the economy and trade is believed to be 5 times more in the central China than before. The cost of transportation has also reduced greatly especially with the introduction of the giant ship locks which are big enough to allow twelve huge commercial ships to travel over the dam at the same time.
The three gorges dam promotes tourism because it combines the worlds famous and largest water conservancy which is man made and also the natural beauty of the three gorges. It has therefore been seen as one of the hottest tourism spots in the world hence attracting tourists to visit the area and witness a scene where a calm lake sits among steep slopes. A lot of scenic places which were previously remote can now be accessed due to the increased navigability of the river.
(a) Loss of income
China has lost a lot of money due to flooding of fertile lands that were used for farming by the residents. Farming was a source of income for the people living a long this river and the crops planted were mainly rice and grains. However, with the submergence of farming land, the government would have to import these crops from other countries to compensate for the loss. Moreover, the new land used in the resettlement process is not as fertile as the previous land hence growing of rice and grains will be much harder and expensive. Another activity that has been affected is fishing because the dam prevents fish from spawning upstream thus reducing the population size. This impact negatively on the local fishing industry thus depriving fishermen who depend on it their livelihood
(b) Escalating costs
A lot of money has been used in the construction of the three gorges dam. This is mainly through relocation and compensation of the displaced people in addition to the costs incurred in the actual construction of the dam. The financial costs cannot be estimated because of the enormity of the expenditures and related development projects in the area. This may slow down the economic development of China bearing in mind that the benefits of the dam will not be immediate while the economic burden will be felt instantly by both the government and the inhabitants.
(c) Loss of tourist attraction site
With the construction of the dam, there will be a lot of historical and archaeological sites which will be destroyed. This will be a loss to the economy because the government earns foreign exchange from these tourist activities. Tourism creates jobs and money for the local people and is therefore a source of income. Therefore people who were dependent on it as their livelihood have had to look for alternative ways to earn a living.
4.0 Environmental impacts
(a) Soil Erosion
Dams cause soil erosion by holding back sediments that are usually found in the flow of a river hence denying the downstream of this. Therefore the downstream erodes its channels and banks so that it can compensate for the sediments hence lowering the riverbed and threatening the river vegetation and wildlife. Even though most dams are constructed to control flooding, some animals are used to this and depend on it for their life cycles such as reproduction and hutching. Furthermore, the floods deposit nutrients downstream and replenish the wetlands.
(b) Extinction of species
The dam has created a barrier in the river blocking the fish to move upstream for spawning. It has destroyed the habitats and cut off migratory routes along the valley and across the river. This has led to a decrease in the population of fish and to some extent, the extinction of certain species. There are 300 species of fish in the Yangtze River whereby 47 are endangered (O’Hara, 2005). An example is the Chinese river dolphin whose only habitat is the Yangtze River and is protected by the Chinese law.
Currently, the Yangtze River is already polluted due to coal shipping, acid rain and its central position of Chinese industrial activities. Pollutants from nearby towns and waste dumps which were flooded added to the pollution of the river. The dam could also have an effect on the absorption of oxygen in the water hence hindering with the aeration process because water will move slowly downstream making it difficult for presence of enough oxygen in the water. This will interfere with the aquatic life because they depend on oxygen for survival.
People who have been relocated have had to clear forested areas further up the valley to create land for farming and new homes. In addition, access to previously remote areas through construction of roads and reservoirs accelerates cutting down of trees. This attracts loggers and developers along the edges of the reservoir who perform activities which are not environmental friendly.
(e) Induced seismicity and geological instability
Large dams are reported to increase seismic activities as they exert pressure on the surface of the earth. Increased seismic activity has already been reported following the construction of the dam and the filling of the reservoir. The instability of the three gorges is dangerous as it raises the risk of landslides in the region (Gleick, 2009).
The positive impact of this dam is the use of water which is a natural and renewable source of energy and does not emit any gases as compared to coal. The dam is now producing hydro electric power and supplying most of the population of China. It has replaced coal which was the main source of energy for China hence reducing the acid rain produced and improved the health standards due to cleaner air.
As the years go by, the general implications of the three gorges dam will be more evident and this includes both the negative and positive impacts. However, by the time full benefits of the dam are felt the environmental, economic and social costs will have accumulated hence the question whether the project will be able to fully compensate for this loss. It bears mentioning that the environment of the three gorges will not be able to sustain the thousands of people who were relocated here and if the government does not take this into account, the economic development of the area will be greatly undermined. It is therefore up to the government to introduce development projects in the region which will help to sustain the people by offering employment. In addition, it should encourage farming through provision of incentives like fertilizers and other farming inputs to assist in this area where the land is not very fertile.
Chetham, D. (2004). Before the Deluge: The Vanishing World of the Yangtze’s Three Gorges. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Gleick, P. H. (2009). Water Brief 3, The Three Gorges Dam Project, Yangtze River, China. Retrieved August 19, 2010, from http://www.worldwater.org/data20082009/WB03.pdf
ministry of Culture, P. R. China. (2003). Yangtze River. Retrieved August 18, 2010, from http://www.chinaculture.org/gb/en_travel/2003-09/24/content_34069.htm
O’Hara, L. (2005). The Three Gorges Dam Project, Environmental Impacts. Retrieved August 18, 2010, from http://www.mtholyoke.edu/~lpohara/Pol 116/enviro.ht
Qing, D., thibodeau, J., Williams, P. B., ; Probe-International. (1998). The river dragon has come!: the three gorges dam and the fate of China’s Yangtze River and it’s people. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.